Stech will arrive soon to show me the latest photos for his book tentatively titled “Great Asses.” It will probably sell a million if anyone bothers to publish it, but, for some reason, he needs my approval of each shot—not my technical approval, for I know nothing about photography, but my moral and maybe aesthetic approval. He says he needs to know when or if he’s “crossed the line.” I don’t really know what he’s talking about, but I humor him. Stech roams the streets of the Quarter following girls and taking snapshots of their derrieres. He likes close work best but sometimes resorts to his zoom. He captures asses from every angle and in every position—from normal walking to bent over picking up keys. He’s devised a rating system from grotesque to sublime, and only those deemed sublime will comprise Volume I (three follow-ups planned). The “asses” in his collection have no idea that they may wind up in a volume of photography; they are totally anonymous asses. I must admit that Stech has a good eye for perfect rotundities. Shorts and blue jeans are his favorites. But spandax is good too, he drools.

My new wife Michelle detests Stech and refuses to even glance at the photos. It’s her way of deleting him—a talent she has that I should have noticed from the beginning. She thinks they’re disgusting. Stech once asked me in confidence if he could sneak in a shot of Michelle’s ass because she has one of the best he’s ever seen. “Perfect, symmetrical, taut, just glorious,” he said. I refused permission, mainly because it would mortify Michelle to find her ass in Stech’s ever swelling collection. I was not a little flattered to think that another man found my wife’s ass so appealing, but that’s one of my little secrets. Not that Michelle wouldn’t know. Of course she would know; women always know such things.

We’re living in my grandmother’s house in the gone-to-seed Bayou Road section of town where I spent my childhood. We moved from a beat-up, dumpy, half shotgun domicile located practically on Tulane’s campus where Michelle and I first lived together about six months after I moved out of the Quarter permanently. To remain there would have meant slow, insidious death by debauchery. I moved out a few months after my former friend Yakob left New Orleans for good and returned home to Brooklyn. He left because his girlfriend Jeannie dumped him abruptly for a rich proctologist uptown. I haven’t heard a word from either of them and don’t expect to. I figure one day I will be remembering all of this and jotting it down before the brain succumbs to the misty cloud of unknowing—the fate of my grandfather after all and his father as well. It’s all in the genes, they say now, as if we didn’t know already.

My failing grandmother now lives with her son and his wife, my parents, in Gentilly. Dad wanted to put the house up for rent for better money than I’m paying him, but I’m a safer bet than some stranger, and, besides, Michelle and I want to renovate every square inch of the place. The place has gone untended for twenty years. Well, Michelle wants the sprucing. It’s her thing, spic and span, Mr. Clean, Southern Living. I can thrive in a hovel as long as I have access to my books and music. Come to think of it, I have lived most of my life in one hovel after another, but Michelle is an uptown princess, originating on an avenue off St. Charles, and it’s slowly beginning to dawn on me, even this early in our relationship, that, hmm, what hath God wrought? I met her at a William Burroughs reading at Loyola University and then we wound up running into each other at just about every art gallery opening or ritzy shindig in town. She had obviously engineered the meetings. Yakob was there when we first met and he said that our eyes burned holes into each other.

“She’s got that look,” he said. “Be careful, my friend. I noted the glistening wedding ring on her finger. It’s that bearded dude with the camera, right? He’s pretty famous around town. Had lots of openings. I just play with my Leica. He’s a pro. And a tough mother-fucker, they say.”

“Black belt. Michelle said he murdered people in Viet Nam, some kind of government assassin. Classified stuff. Am I scared? Hell yes.”

“How do you work it out? I mean, seeing her?”

“She calls when she can. Then we arrange to meet, mostly coffee houses on Maple Street. Not PJ’s, the less frequented ones, those that will go out of business in a year, where nobody wants to be seen. Once we were parked in her ancient Renault in the most obscure part of the UNO student parking lot, and I just happened to look out the side mirror and saw him chugging toward us as if compelled by the gods. ‘He’s right behind us,’ I cried to Michelle. ‘We’ve got to move fast!’ The car was idling, she shifted into first, roared forward, then skipped into third and off we went. I didn’t look back. I remember the moment with dread and horror. He’s built like a ziggurat, would have creamed me, killed me probably.”

“Would you die for love, Cecci?”

It took a moment to smile. The question seemed both ludicrous and more serious than any I’d ever been asked. “Sure,” I shrugged. “Who wouldn’t?”

“More would rather die for money,” Yakob sighed.

“And the guy has a rich mother. If there’s one thing about this city I don’t grasp, it’s all the guys uptown with rich mothers. A lot of them still live with their mothers, I mean, middle-aged, even old guys. It’s a New Orleans thing, guys living with their mothers.”

“Well, he doesn’t. He lives with the chick you crave. His wife, my man.”

“Just drive in the dagger, why don’t you?”

Michelle and I sit at the ancient art deco porcelain table that I have known since childhood. Don’t ever let anyone tell you that material objects lack spirit. We’re in what my grandparents used as a kind of dining-TV room. The walls were always sooty from the unvented gas heater my grandfather turned on from January to March. The walls were always black, the musty, green French shutters on both windows were always drawn. It’s a dark, gloomy room where, for the last ten years of his life, my grandfather sat on a rubber hemorrhoid ring in a captain’s chair and watched one black and white television show after another. To save the wall from over-heating, he had installed a ragged sheet of asbestos between it and the heater. Michelle has already transformed one of the room’s walls into a melon orange color thanks to Sherwin-Williams and a roller. The trim had to be a specialized and therefore a more expensive hue called Foam White. Since I have no taste at all, I go blindly along with it all. I assume it’s what you call learning. I’m from the wrong side of the tracks. What do I know about decor? But Michelle knows and wastes little time working the scrapers, spackling knives, paintbrushes and Stryp-Eaze. I am deliriously in love and enjoy working with her. She handles tools better than most men I know, and she takes careful measurements with her carpenter’s fold-up ruler. I like it when that subtle bead of perspiration blooms on the flesh between her nose and upper lip. I like watching her work, and I spy on her when she’s busy taping up cracks in the plaster.

We’re taking a break. I have been prying seventy-year-old, two-inch thick plaster from a chimney sealed for over a hundred years. Michelle wants the natural brick look. I am coated with plaster dust; its grit irritates my eyes and nostrils. You’ve got to use a cold chisel or crowbar and mall to break off larger slabs, and then you pick at the smaller pieces with a screwdriver or whatever works. The eighteen-foot ceilings don’t help. My feet ache from standing on the ladder’s rungs. It’s not my kind of work at all, and I never thought I’d wind up doing such a thing. But then you haven’t seen Michelle.

We’re drinking iced tea at the table as Michelle’s eyes dart about the room seeking flaws to improve. I feel a bit deflated because a seditious little demon in the back of my mind keeps whispering, “desecration.” True, we are desecrating that which is already desecrated, but the original desecration accrued with time, erosion, naturally so to speak. Our desecration seems invasive, unwarranted, destructive (however spiffy the new house will come to look), and, after all, it’s still my grandmother’s house. I didn’t ask her permission to transform her property, nor did I ask Dad’s. I can’t blame Michelle. She has lived in spiffy houses all of her life, and, frankly, I’m learning about renovation, a subject foreign to my mind. It never occurred to me that behind those plastered protuberances in old houses lurked brick chimneys.

“We need plants,” Michelle sighs. She’s getting tired, if that’s possible. Her endurance usually knows no bounds. I’m feeling both randy and antsy—randy for her and antsy over the imminent arrival of Stech, who will probably bring along some of his friends, poets, artists, musicians, whatever, artsy types. I know them all. They’re the only people I ever hang around with. I have no normal, regular friends. I would not know what to say to a normal person or how to behave in his or her presence. Same goes for Michelle. She likes the art crowd though she is not of them. She might even pass for “normal” if she weren’t so utterly, irreparably strange herself. Yet in a normal way. How can I explain? I can’t.

“Ready?” Michelle asks, meaning, am I ready to hack away at the chimney some more.

“I need a break,” I sigh. “You go ahead while I just sit here for a while. I’m filthy.”

So she rises, leans over and pecks me on my dusty cheek. Love is a dream, an oceanic miasma in which we float, unbound from time and worry, the supreme elixir and religion. Michelle and I, like opposing magnetic fields, engulf each other. We’re rarely apart and must constantly touch or hug as if to ensure that the dream will never evaporate. Even so, despite the magic, electricity, the possession . . . dreamers occasionally awaken, if only for a moment, to assess, to face the most seditious of gods, doubt. This is precisely what happens a few moments later when Michelle drags the ladder across the floor and stations it beneath a bronze art deco chandelier which she plans to burnish little by little in order to restore its original, muted glow. Equipped with Brasso and a rag, she mounts the ladder, then swivels her body, pivots her back on its uppermost rungs and gets to work. When I walk over to inspect, I note happily that my head is at the same level as her pelvis, covered with only the thin cloth of her shorts. I am overwhelmed at the sight and thrust my face into her pudendum and can’t get enough and clutch her hips as I taste her, ravish her with my lips. She laughs tentatively, “Is that all you’re interested in?” It’s not a critique, not a reprimand, not a command to desist . . . but it effectively kills the moment. I withdraw and mumble something about needing the ladder if I’m to butcher more of the chimney plaster.

I might not have responded so despondently but for the fact that our first dozen or so times at lovemaking before we were married resulted in total bodily paralysis for Michelle. We were naked, cocooned in my cheap, furry sofa, I on top, kissing her madly, she returning the kisses with equal breathless ardor. I moved my hands over her breasts and cupped them, and she moaned sweetly as we gazed into each other’s eyes. Soon enough I was inside and we came together and all should have been glorious, but Michelle suddenly gasped, couldn’t speak, seemed frantic. “What the hell?” I cried. “Michelle, are you all right? What’s wrong, sweetheart? You’re pale!” It crossed my mind that maybe she had some unconfessed heart condition. I rolled off of her onto my knees on the floor beside her, prepared to carry her out to the car and rush her to Oschener Clinic. She looked terrified, stiffened, gagged, and blurted in a cackled voice, “I can’t move.” Her face chalked and, yes, she became stiff and immobile. She looked at me in terror, and I prayed I was not the cause of her dread. Was she having a seizure of some kind, a heart attack?

“Love,” I said, stroking her drenched forehead, “do you want me to get you to the ER?”

She shook her head, gasping, “It will pass. Just hold me.”

Thus, I assumed the problem had occurred in the past with some other lover, that previous husband probably, which did not make me happy, but it did relieve me. What was “it”?

Within fifteen or so minutes, she recovered, but, when I tried to discuss the matter with her, she grew stonily silent. She refused to talk about what had happened.

So I groped. “Will it happen again? Anything I can do?”

She shook her head and brushed me aside.

“Uh, Michelle, are you sure?”

“Drop it,” she snarled. “Haven’t you ever gone paralyzed?”

I let it go given her adamancy, but, no, I have never gone paralyzed.

We sit at the porcelain table drinking Barq’s root beer and nibbling on crackers smeared with Camembert. She has changed into a pair of scandalous killer turquoise shorts and a halter that rises so high at certain angles it exposes the lower curvatures of her breasts. She permanently tantalizes me. I am enslaved by choice. When the doorbell rings, I traipse down the long hallway to the heavy front door with its art nouveau embellishments and ancient rippled glass, unlock it and swing it open to find Stetch and his weird friend Shadrack, his full name Shadrack Zion. Shadrack stands about five six, weighs two hundred or more pounds, appears to have no real neck and is, I suspect, autistic. He’s devoted to Stetch, and they hang out together most of the time, but his input to conversation limits itself to sudden, ejaculatory repetitions of words uttered by speakers who actually converse or random lines of poetry that may or may not relate to the issues at hand. Icing on the cake—he has a woeful, almost tragic lisp.

I lead Stetch and Shadrack to the dining room where I’m surprised to find Michelle still sitting at the table. Usually, she hides out somewhere. Shadrack actually gasps at the sight of her and Stetch seems mesmerized. I know what he’s thinking, the Pentax K-1000 bobbing from his neck. “Hello,” he says meekly to Michelle who nods in return. Shadrack davens as he stares at her.

“Can I get you guys a drink? We only have Barq’s or water,” she asks so saucily I almost suspect that she wants to test her powers.

Both opt for Barq’s, and I coax them into the two vacant chairs. Stetch fixates on Michelle’s ass as she makes her way toward the kitchen. Do I actually hear him sigh “ahhh?” Shadrack pipes in: “Barq’sth.”

Michelle returns with the drinks and plops down in her chair. I ask Stetch how the book is coming.

“Well,” he sighs again, now more audibly, “I’m half-way done. There’s this guy who might want to publish it, this dude across the river who owns a print shop. Sometimes he publishes books of poetry and stuff like that. Small-time independent so I would rather a major company—but you know what the publishing industry is like now. Need an agent and previous publications. So I’m just floating along.”

“Floating,” Shadrack says flatly.

Michelle and I exchange glances. “I think you have a shot with the majors,” I say (and I do) because the book is unique.”

“And obscene,” Michelle says sweetly. “People like obscene even if they don’t admit it.”

I almost feel Stetch’s heart flutter at her compliment. I don’t believe she has ever said a word to Stetch before. I know her inflections though, and she’s toying with him.

“Obthene,” Shadrack says.

And so on it goes—Stetch thinks he’s in love with an uptown girl named Elise though he’s only seen her from afar, Shadrack may need stomach surgery, I am consumed with renovating the house, Michelle does a better job with finishing touches—small talk going nowhere. I put up with Stetch because I know if I ever need a helping hand he is utterly reliable and because I pity him some. I don’t think there’s a mean bone in his body and, voila, he loves me. I don’t have many friends so I tolerate Stetch—if you can call that friendship.

Shadrack: “We all thit round in a thircle and thuppose/While the thecret thits in the middle and knowths.”

I know the poet. “That’s Frost, great little poem.”

Shadrack: “Poem.”

I can tell Michelle is suppressing a laugh. I suspect she finds the entire situation ludicrous. She asks Stetch, who has drained his glass, if he’d like a refill.

Stetch nods, breaks out in a sweat. He trembles, pants.

“Are you ok, man?” I ask. Is he having a seizure?

“Ok,” he assures me as he rises unsteadily and sinks to his knees and actually crawls after Michelle as she returns to the kitchen, his eyes glued on her posterior.

“Juliusth Theasure,” says Shadrack.

Michelle turns angrily. “What are you doing?”

Stetch clasps his hands as if in prayer. “Please, Michelle. Please. Let me shoot your glorious ass, the best I have ever seen. Don’t hate me. I know they’ll publish the book with your ass on the cover. Is this all right with you both?” He glances back at me, but I am momentarily speechless.

Shadrack: “Assth.”

I gaze at Michelle to try to decipher her response, but she ignores me. She’s letting me know she’s on her own. As she peers down at Stetch, a drop of condensation from the glass she’s holding drips onto his clasped hands. Greedily, he licks it up. “Please, Michelle. I’ll pay you. I don’t have any money, but I’ll pay you anyway. If the book sells, I’ll give you half the profits.”

Michelle puts a thoughtful finger to her lips and nods her head gently as if in deep thought. “Hmmm,” she hums mostly to herself. “Means that much to you, eh? I don’t get it, and I think it’s disgusting, and if you ever put my name on it, I’ll hunt you down and torture you.”

We’ve all seen cartoons eyeballs popping out of characters’ sockets, and I swear Stetch’s eyeballs seem to so bulge forth. “You mean, you’ll do it? Oh, I beg you. Please, please.”

“What the hell. I am going to walk toward the fridge to get another Barq’s. This is your only chance so you better shoot while the shooting is good.” She turns and walks in rather slow motion. Stetch whips the camera to his face, focuses and snaps the shutter about a dozen times before Michelle changes her mind and turns around.

“Oh, thank you, thank you, thank you. I love you, I mean, as a friend, you know. This will be wonderful.”

Michelle is now out of his focal range or at least her ass is. It’s done. I never dreamed that she would consent. How do I feel about it? Actually, I feel nothing at all. Hers is another anonymous ass in a book full of asses. So what? I admit I am a little perplexed that she didn’t consult me on the matter but no big deal. She has her rights. She’s the boss. If Stetch immortalizes her ass, I should be proud. Stetch is still on his knees now lovingly rubbing the Pentax-K1000 as if it contains every treasure in the world. He will leave this house and rush straight to his dark room. I won’t even begin to imagine what he’ll do when Michelle comes into focus in the developing pan. Oh, I know what he’ll do all right, but I don’t want to think about it.

Shadrack: “Thomath Jefferthon still liveth.”

Why is Shadrack repeating the dying words of John Adams? Frankly, I don’t believe Adams said any such thing as he lay dying. More likely he wheezed or screamed. Who knows what transpires in the bizarre mind of Shadrack Zion.

Then: “Boobieth” as he stares at Michelle’s halter.

Michelle now seems to be enjoying the attention, though usually she remains oblivious to the gawking of other men. Usually she cancels them out and goes about her business. So what’s happened? I don’t plan to come right out and ask her. That might make her think me a jealous fool. But other questions have also stirred in my mind. Would I love Michelle if she did not have the assets she has? I like to think I would, but suppose she weighed eight hundred pounds and resembled Quasimodo yet retained the same soul and personality? I doubt if I could manage that. What about Stetch and Shadrack? Would they react at all to her if she weren’t the hot little number she is? I suspect not. So does this make us men the “pigs” feminists claim we are because we perceive women as merely sexual objects? I can’t accept that denunciation, but surely it’s apropos in certain cases. Shadrack commented “boobieth,” and he doesn’t know Michelle at all. Michelle, for him, amounts to a set of extraordinary breasts. I mean, I love her breasts as well. . . so am I in league with Shadrack? The indictment is too severe. Why can’t men love women and love their varied parts as well? But I really don’t want to think on these things as the sage Krishnamurti, in other more momentous areas, advised. I must learn to live for what’s at hand.

So we’re back to painting walls, refinishing floors, Windexing windows that have not been cleaned in thirty years (oh the scum!), polishing brass door knobs, sucking up dust from the blades of ancient art deco ceiling fans. . . everything, we’re doing everything, and it consumes all of our time and energy. I ask myself if I would bother with any of this were it not for Michelle, a classic clean freak, and the answer is no. I don’t care about dust, cobwebs, scum, faded walls, the lot of it. I have lived in squalor all of my life. It doesn’t seem worth the time and effort to make things shine and glow. There are more important things in this world than Windex, Sherwin-Williams, Murphy Oil Soap, Brillo pads, Brass-o, constant trips to Lowe’s . . . how many years of life does renovation require? But, for Michelle, I gladly comply. This, I believe, is an indication of why and how women have the real power in this world. They convert men into docile helpmates. I’m not saying we hombres should not help out. Of course we should. I do my share of the normal housework—the dishes, bagging up the trash, changing light bulbs and many other demands of daily life. Stetch does no housework at all—fruit flies abound, his toilet is a disgrace, the place reeks of cat piss. This is because he’s obsessed with erotic photography, and, in the end, if his book soars to fame, that’s all that counts.

Michelle always smells clean, like soap with a hint of cocoanut. Even when working so hard that her clothes dampen with sweat, she smells clean and pure. I love the way she smells. I knew a woman once who smelled like onions, a real turn-off. I have yet to discover Michelle’s secret. She doesn’t seem to bathe or shower or rub in lotion or deodorant any more than anyone else, so how does she exude such a pleasant scent all the time? If she has been in a room, that scent lingers. It’s a tracer. Want to find Michelle? Follow the attar.

Is the mystery of Michelle that she has no mystery, that what you see is what you get? Sometimes I suspect as much, but mostly I believe that she harbors some almost fathomless secret no one, including me, can ever excavate or even probe. It might require another mad Schliemann who unearthed ancient Troy to reveal the essence of Michelle. As it stands, I bask in a mystery that may prove no mystery other than being no mystery. I dreamt the other night that I answered the doorbell to find a tall, gaunt, Max von Sydow-type who looked ashen and venerable. I asked what he wanted, and he said he was looking for Michelle Willow and traced her to this address.

“May I ask why you want her and who you are?” I, ready for defense, suspicious, feared this strange person at our door.

“I am her father,” he said. “I have come to set her free.”

I felt bewildered and not a little outraged. The dream faded instantly after he spoke, so I have no idea what this nocturnal message means—and I do believe dreams have import. I have studied dreams, and I figure the “father” amounted to some variant of the wise-old-man archetype, but how that archetype applied, I could not grasp. He disturbed me, though, and my defense was to try to forget the dream, ignore it, but I could not ignore it. Finally I asked Michele some questions about her father, a man she never mentioned, not once, since I met her at the art gallery opening.

The doorbell rings again. It’s Stetch some four or five days after his last visit with Shadrack. He looks exhausted, disheveled, wide-eyed, and, oh, he smells of unchanged clothes, that stale untended odor of poverty and filth. I invite him in, but he waves his hands wildly, no his hands say urgently, and he’s actually leaping around on the porch, panting, breathless, hyperventilating. I ask if he’s ok, and he nods effulgently.

“Great news,” he gushes. “Remember that publisher I told you about?” He’s having trouble speaking with all the gasping. “Well, I made a mock up of the book and a cover, and he took one look at Michelle’s ass and flipped, wigged out, man. He gave me a contract to sign on the spot. Said I just need to find some more great asses to fill up the book, to finish it. But, he said, the one on the cover is fabulous! Michelle! Are you proud? Are you joyous?”

I’m not sure how I feel about this news, and, frankly, I’m getting a little pissed. All this talk about Michelle’s “ass.” Is there a better, less raunchy word? Buttocks? Behind? Rump? I guess not. “Ass” is perfect, but still . . .

“Where’s your disciple?” I ask.

“Shadrack? Oh, man, this is sad. We went to a Quarter bar, and you know how he repeats words. Well, a group of grungy hoodlums were standing next to us getting drunker by the second. Shad picked up on the gruntings and started to repeat some of it. They pulverized him, man, beat him to a pulp. He’s in Mercy Hospital with a fractured rib and who knows what else. I’m on my way to visit him, but I had to stop by and tell you the news. We’ll all be famous, man! Well, maybe not you, but Michelle for sure.”

“No mention of her name,” I say dourly. “You promised. If you do, you may wind up in that hospital as well.”

“Ok. Ok. But you know what I mean.”

I don’t know what he means and watch him leap down the steps and rush toward his battered, ancient Chevy, which backfires as he starts the ignition and lurches away from the curb. A passing car screeches as it brakes to avoid collision. Stetch is not of this world.

Now she’s hanging wallpaper, and I am watching her do it from my chair stationed in the doorway. I am always watching Michelle. I have become a voyeur. She does everything perfectly, never messes up. She uses an antique brass plumbob with a blue chalk line for perfect longitudes. She plucks the string and, voila, a square blue chalk line is traced onto the wall. She descends the ladder to retrieve a strip of floral wallpaper from the sink. She carries it by her fingertips to the ladder, mounts every rung to the top—these are eighteen-foot ceilings—secures and fastens the top edge, works her way down the paper with her palms, slides it into place along the way then smooths out bubbles and creases with a wallpaper roller. It’s a perfect job. Then she’s onto the next strip, which needs to soak for a while. She must make certain to configure the patterns of each strip so that they match up with the previous strip. It’s an arduous, painstaking job. It’s not something I could even begin to accomplish.

“Need to rest a while?” I ask futilely from my chair.

She is concentrating so intensely that she doesn’t hear me. At the moment, Michelle is her task; she and the work at hand coincide precisely. Suddenly, the image of her terrified post-coital face flashes in my mind: her entire body stiff, shedding tears, “I can’t move,” she howls, “I can’t move.” I am utterly perplexed by this woman. Who is Michelle? She has provided little information about her past other than to volunteer that her father is a psychiatrist and her mother, a social worker of sorts. They live uptown—I, of course, originate on the other side of the tracks. They have money. Art fascinates Michelle, but she is no artist aside from house renovation. I suppose you could call her more of a craftsman. I do not denigrate crafts. Craftsmanship has always eluded me though Michelle has taught me many a trick when it comes to painting trim, grouting, stripping furniture, restoring old leather, squaring joints, those sorts of thing. In many ways she is more of a man than I am, if manliness involves working with the materials of this world, while at the same time remaining very much a dainty, fragile, beautiful woman. She confuses me, which is also a part of the mystery. I can’t get a grip on this woman. She is the object out of reach that somehow I reached and wooed and wed. But have I been duped? Is Michelle merely a set of glittery, gorgeous covers with only blank pages between them? If this sounds harsh, consider:

The other night I approached her tenderly, and she squirmed out of my arms. I am not a sex maniac, but I reminded her that we were running short on amor. She snapped, “There won’t be any more of that. I’m busy.”

I stood stunned, eyebrows raised. “Well, once we finish the house?”

“No,” she said. “I mean ever. I don’t like sex. If you love me, you won’t mind.”

“You don’t like sex? You mean with me? Am I doing something wrong? Just talk to me.”

She fidgeted, sighed, refused to look me in the eye. “It’s not you. For what it’s worth, you’re great in bed. I’m terrified. I get paralyzed, you know that.”

“Was it the same with your first husband or am I the lucky loser?” I asked, a bit pissed.

“The same,” she said. “I’m the problem. You can go do whatever you want with anybody. It’s ok.”

I have been around long enough to know that when a woman tells you that you can do whatever you want with anybody she means exactly the opposite. Try it if you don’t believe me. I assume Michelle wanted some sort of moral support, succor, comfort, so I hugged her, and she melted in my arms. “Thanks,” she whispered.

So now the moral dilemma. Is she right? If I love her, I won’t mind? How can I not mind? Say she had been stricken with some horrible disease and became incapacitated. We said until death do us part, right? She refuses to see a medical doctor or a shrink because she truly believes she has no problem. She just doesn’t like sex. Is she in the closet and doesn’t know it? How can anyone not like sex? I don’t get it. Sex is perhaps God’s one great gift to humanity. I’m married to a beautiful woman I crave, physically and mentally, yet there is no mental rapport, not substantially anyway, and now the physical is off limits as well. Should I have foreseen this dilemma? Before we married, when we sneaked about around town, despite the paralytic incidents, we made love constantly. Was she luring me in and not enjoying any of it? As for mental rapport, I must admit that love is blind—I assumed it a mystery, that I could explore the mystery, that I would eventually understand the mystery. I was stricken by her gentleness and beauty; I could not see straight; I set aside any doubts, even those I allowed to surface every now and then. I refused to acknowledge them. I wanted Michelle, body and soul. The old Chinese proverb comes to mind: “Be careful what you wish for.”

I love her nevertheless. I know I will prove unfaithful because I am not a eunuch. I know that once she discovers the infidelity, she will leave me.

Stetch dropped off a copy of the book, a good-looking, oversized hardback with glossy cover, which he finished in record time. Now he’s at a book-signing event. I speed through the house and find

Michelle out in the backyard, a patio-like affair, bricked, ten-feet high wooden fences enclosing it, a banana and kumquat tree, a red pepper bush with peppers so potent they cause hives. Michelle is refinishing an antique Mission oak rocker with this viscous stripping liquid. She lathers it on with a paintbrush, waits a few minutes, scrapes off the residue with a putty knife, applies a second thinner coat, then rubs it off with fine steel wool. The stripper can burn holes in your fingers so she wears a pair of thick rubber gloves. I flash the book before her eyes, but she waves me away to sit on the concrete steps of the back porch. She can’t let the stripping goo dry. So I wait for her to finish with the steel wooling part and remove the mottled gloves. When she comes to sit beside me, she smells like one of the fabulous four o-clocks that also blooms in the patio garden. She’s wearing a thin t-shirt with no bra. As usual, she arouses me, her mere proximity arouses me, the dust jacket photo of her derriere arouses me. I am a slave to arousal. She takes one look at the photo and snaps, “That’s not my behind.”

“What?” I’m taken aback for it certainly is her behind.

“It’s too fat. Not mine. Doesn’t matter. I’ve got to finish this chair before it rains.”

She pecks me on the cheek, adds a perfunctory “I love you,” and returns to the rocking chair.

I’m thinking, are we now also dealing with incipient anorexia? Surely Michelle is the case study

Freud missed. But we have come to an arrangement—I refused to do any more work on the house without reward, and the house needs a massive amount of work, interior and exterior. We have devised a point system—for every hour of my help, I receive ten points. When I reach one hundred points, Michelle deigns to allow me to fondle her, anywhere I want, and if I reach two hundred points (excluding those waived during fondling sessions), she consents to lie naked on the bed and permits conjugation. It’s ridiculous, I know, insane, perverse, but otherwise I would go mad, and she knows that. She sincerely regrets my suffering and tolerates a bit of paralytic suffering herself in order to, as she puts it, “save our relationship.” Relationship. A word I detest. The enigma of Michelle. Points. Gold stars. Lollipops. Green stamps. What’s the difference? I’m reduced to a grade-school child on his best behavior lest I develop blue balls.

I earned the most recent two hundred points by standing on a ladder twenty-five feet up to repair some damaged weather boards on the street side of the house. Of course I prolonged the time required in order to garner points, but, nevertheless, the job challenged and exhausted me. When I claimed my reward, I can honestly say that Michelle enjoyed herself. As we climaxed, she kissed me all over the face, moaned in delight, whispered rhapsodically, “I love you, I love you, I love you.” Then, there was the usual paralysis and howling, which lasts about fifteen minutes. But why during the moment of supreme ecstasy did an image of Shadrack pop into my mind, the cartoon light bulb? There he was, davening with his usual blank countenance: “Conquesth or defeat?”

How about both at once, Shad, the old Pyrrhic victory?

Who knows how long I can put up with this ghastly situation? For the moment, though, I am committed to Michelle. Is it merely her beauty? Am I the beast? What does this say about men in general and me in particular? Right now I don’t care. I’m satiated, smoking a joint as Michelle recovers beside me. She holds my hand tenderly. “It will be all right,” I soothe her as I rub her bounteous hair. She wants to get back to work. I may actually help her for free, no points accrued. In these parts they call this little extra freebie, “lagniappe.” Sometimes it bounces back some. Sometimes you just might feel good about spreading some largesse.

I’ve heard Great Asses sold out. A second edition is pending.

 

© Louis Gallo
[This piece was selected by Katrin Gibb. Read Louis’ interview]